NEWS feeds have been jammed-up recently as more and more reports of child sexual abuse within football have come to light. So much so that a national helpline has been set up to take the hundreds of calls that are already flooding in from concerned people. To date, the police have confirmed that more than 300 referrals of abuse have been received via the helpline and other sources. A dedicated helpline set up by the NSPCC received 860 calls in its first week.
It is no surprise that such large numbers of cases of sexual abuse within football are being reported. I would argue, furthermore, that we are seeing only the tip of what may be a substantial iceberg. Wherever work is undertaken with children and young people, there is the potential for abuse to occur. This does not apply only to football coaching, but within a myriad of settings — including the Church.
For nearly 40 years, the Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS) has worked to support and safeguard some of the most vulnerable people in society. Working alongside churches and other faith-based organisations, we have seen significant change since we were set up. But we have also seen and heard much that does little to give the public confidence that churches are safe enough places for the vulnerable.
Recent reports about abuse within the Church, which are being investigated by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) (News, 18 March), only feed concerns about how some sections of the Church have dealt with such cases, for decades. In this respect, it seems that there is much in common between football and faith in terms of the risks that may be presented to children where safeguarding is not taken seriously.
Drawing parallels between pitch and pulpit might seem strange, but doing so allows us see that there is much common ground, at a fundamental level.
The key ingredient is that much of the child abuse that is being reported in both football and faith settings is being perpetrated by those who hold positions of trust, power, and authority. This could be a coach selling the bright lights of a promising professional football career, or a church leader promoting his or her twisted sense of the “will of God”.
But the key similarity is the huge personal and emotional investment that the child so often makes in the adult in such circumstances. It is this that provides opportunities for abuse to take place. This investment in the relationship also enables the abuser to wield power over the child victim which maintains their compliance and silence. We should remember, too, that, at the heart of any such abusive relationship, whether in football, faith, or anywhere else, lies a gross abuse of the trust that has previously been established.
SINCE 2003, UK law (The Sexual Offences Act) has specified that a limited range of jobs, including social workers, teachers, police officers, health-care workers, and some others, are classed as holding a “Position of Trust” when working with children. It was specifically designed to protect 16- and 17-year-olds, since they might be particularly vulnerable to abuse by those in such professions. The Act also provides for an offence of “Abuse of a Position of Trust” in some circumstances, but this only applies to the professions and settings specified in the legislation.
I have thought for some time that this definition of “Position of Trust” needs amending and broadening. Many people hold positions that give them an immense level of trust and power over children, but which fall outside the current definition: these include football coaches and ministers of religion. Children deserve no less protection from those with harmful intent operating in these environments than those currently specified within the 2003 Act.
For some time, organisations such as the NSPCC have highlighted the shortcomings in the current “Position of Trust” provisions, particularly in relation to sport, and have called for change. Previous calls on the Government to overhaul these legal provisions have met with the response that there is insufficient evidence to suggest that the issue is big enough to warrant such a change.
I cannot believe, in the light of recent publicity about child abuse in football, and the ever-increasing tide of concern relating to abuse in the Church, that the Government can continue to shy away from new legislation. The time is right for it, and our children deserve it; not as a panacea to cure all such concerns, but as a mechanism through which safer practice can be framed, and sanctions brought in cases where it is much needed.
Justin Humphreys is the Executive Director (safeguarding) at Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service.